I’ve often wondered if part of the reason there’s so much poison on Twitter and other social media is that it’s hard to identify pieces of text on screen as real, knowledgeable people.
I was aroused by this thought a recent Washington Post shaking Brianna Wusta, who had been subjected to extreme harassment several years ago during the GamerGate situation. Some former members of the group apparently contact him, and they apologize and apologize for their past actions. The story reminded me of something that happened to me a long time ago in the BBS days (bulletin board system).
Worth a couple of songs with me when I set the stage.
First, for those who may not know, BBSet were text-based online discussion groups, many of which were local, popular before the network came to dominate, mostly in the 1980s and early 1990s. (Atlantic told the story in 2016 It gave a good sense of what BBSets were.) I became a member and then a sysop (administrator) in one of these NYC groups called Women’s BBS (or WBBS). We tried to create a place where people could talk sensibly when women were still seen as intermediaries in many (possibly most) online spaces. Although there were women-only areas on the BBS, most discussion groups were open to all.
Naturally, we got our share of those. Those who seemed able to at least have some sort of conversation, be it narrow-minded, were transferred to a separate section called the “Battlefield,” where all those who like confrontation can shout at each other according to their hearts. Really nasty messages were deleted.
This takes me (finally) to my story. One day I did the usual rounds of new entries and came across one such message, a collection of rather weak arrogance. I was going to delete it when I realized (from the general tone and some typos) that it was probably written by some teenager or even younger. So instead, I sent an answer that read, “Do you understand that some of the women here are your age? And some are your mother’s age? Are you saying something so offensive to your mother? Or someone you know? “
To my slight surprise, I received a confused answer. It turned out that the rather embarrassed malice came from a 12-year-old who hadn’t psychologically realized that the people who read his message were real, real people with a personality and a life. To him, they were just impersonal names on screen, names related to a movement he had been told was ridiculous and a comic book. By answering him as a real person, I had become real.
We talked back and forth for about an hour – about his life, school, and other topics. Finally, I asked him to always think about who was going to read what he published online because they were as real as he was. I don’t know if our conversation has affected him in the long run. I want to think it did.
Of course, after these first baby steps in online interaction, things have changed radically.
Not only have services like Facebook and Twitter made online chat a part of everyone’s life (and not part of computer skills), but we no longer just exchange text messages. And you would think that apps like TikTok would make it obvious that the people who send their messages to the world are indeed people.
Or not. In my experience, TikTok and YouTube videos look as appealing, if not more vitriol than text messages.
So I went looking for answers. There have been numerous articles showing the psychology of online interaction and presenting various theories as to why people seem to feel freer to attack others online. One, from Mosaic science and The BBC republished, describes several behavioral experiments and positions that if you mean online, no one you know in “real life” will see. Another, from KQED, describes “inhibitory effect online“That says being online reduces your barriers. And yet another The Chicago School of Occupational Psychology tells us how social media negatively affects our self-image by constantly making us compare ourselves to others.
And these are just the first three I came across.
Because we are human beings, there are no definitive answers. This means I continue to wonder when I scan Twitter or look at TikTok’s comments or responses to articles and see how people fade intelligent, malicious responses to messages about tragic situations or relatively harmless observations. Do they do it just because they can? Because they had a bad day and this is one way to let the steam out? Because some of us make the mistake of insulting the mind? Because they express contempt for some people seeking the approval and support of others?
Or is it that despite the pictures and videos, we may still not really see them as others on the air as humans?